Sacking John Cleese wasn”t mean – he”s had plenty of money from me! Eric Idle on his fall-out with his former fellow Python
Eric Idle is strumming his guitar, well, idly, in the hotel foyer. It’s late afternoon yet one guest, objecting to Idle having woken him up, comes out of his room and asks him to keep the noise down. Idle apologises and, taking advantage of the fact his accuser can’t see him, instructs an aide: ‘Just tell him it was Michael Palin.’
Idle — along with Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam — was a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the surreal TV series which ran from 1969 to 1974, giving us The Ministry of Silly Walks, singing lumberjacks and a dead parrot.
It made stars of the six men, and Idle says he’s still in touch with all the surviving members (Chapman died in 1989) — yes, even John Cleese, in spite of their fall-out over money which emerged this week.
Looking on the bright side: Eric Idle has spoken about his fall-out with former fellow Python John Cleese
It was Idle’s idea to create the musical Spamalot — ‘lovingly ripped off’, he admits, from the 1975 film Monty Python And The Holy Grail. It became a worldwide hit, grossing 110million and several awards on Broadway, and receiving rave reviews everywhere from London’s West End to Stockholm and Tokyo.
Along the way, says Idle, although the other Pythons had almost nothing to do with the show, they have all benefited to the tune of 650,000 each.
They stand to make even more now, as a new UK run opened in Brighton last night, featuring comedian Marcus Brigstocke as King Arthur, Jodie Prenger from Oliver! as the Lady of the Lake and former EastEnders star Todd Carty as Arthur’s coconut-playing assistant Patsy.
Until now, Cleese has been paid an extra royalty because he had recorded the voice of God for the previous shows.
Idle,however, has enraged him by deciding to sack Cleese from that task and do the voiceover himself. ‘It wasn’t mean,’ he insists. ‘He’s had plentyof money already — he’s always in financial crisis.’
Former colleagues: John Cleese and Eric Idle are seen here in 1993, by which point their relationship had improved
No doubt this is because Cleese’s third wife, Alice Faye Eichelberger, took him to the cleaners for 13million during their divorce proceedings three years ago. ‘Personally, I wouldn’t even take 13million to be married to him,’ says Idle. ‘But I’ve been sending him royalty cheques in case he decides to get married again!’
Cleese hit back on Twitter, calling him Yoko Idle, a sardonic reference to Yoko Ono — accused of splitting up the Beatles — and he admits there is no love lost between them.
Allvery Pythonesque, but Idle prefers to ignore the quarrel and enjoy the success. ‘I’m more surprised than anyone that Spamalot’s done so well,’ he admits. ‘You can never predict what’s going to be a hit.
‘I’vejust had to throw away another project I spent three years working on. It was called Death — The Musical which I thought was great, but I showed it to Mike Nichols [Spamalot’s original director] and he said: “You’re out of your mind! Who wants to see something with that title”’
Flying Circus: The stars of Monty Python – Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Jones – are seen here in their prime
A couple of Pythons weren’t complimentary about Spamalot to begin with. (Terry Jones, who co-directed the original film, once said: ‘Spamalot is utterly pointless. It’s full of air.’)
‘Iunderstand that reasoning,’ says Idle, ‘but they’ve all said very nice things since. We wrote a very funny film together and they said yes to my idea of doing Spamalot, so they all deserve the money.’
Talland slightly lanky, Idle looks far younger than his 68 years, the result perhaps of having lived a healthy life in California for almost two decades.
A smile is never too far from his lips, and it’s hard not to call to mind Always Look On The Bright Side of Life — the song he dashed off in 20 minutes for the 1979 film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, cheerfully sung in the film’s final crucifixion scene.
The song also features in Spamalot, and says Idle: ‘In the early Nineties, when I lived in England, Gary Lineker was a neighbour and he said: “D’you know,they’re singing it on the football terraces”
“It was Manchester United’s song until they became successful, and since it’s not really a song you can sing if things are going well, Sir Alex Ferguson ruined it for me!
‘Apparently, when HMS Sheffield was hit in the Falklands, the sailors sang it for three hours. I like that it’s taken on a life of its own.’
Thesong’s sense of ridiculous optimism in the face of adversity is one to which Idle relates. He overcame, in his words, ‘a really unhappy childhood’ to achieve success ‘and I never imagined for a second that I’d end up with the life I now have’.
Whenhe was two, his father Ernest, an RAF officer, was returning safely from World War II only to be killed by a car while hitchhiking his way home — a tragedy so ironic it could almost have been a Python sketch.
Five years later, the young Eric was sent to a boarding school where he was to spend 12 ‘miserable’ years. After Cambridge, where he was president of Footlights theatrical society, Idle joined Monty Python and his place in the comic firmament was set.
Success: Eric Idle, centre, acknowledges applause with Tim Curry who plays the part of King Arthur, right, and other cast members during the curtain call for the Broadway premiere of Spamalot in New York in 2005
Like many comedians, he has gone through moments of depression. ‘I can be miserable and moody, especially when I’m writing comedy,’ he says. ‘I had Epstein Barr [a virus with flu-like symptoms] for a long time.
‘Recently, I had irritable bowel syndrome and got over that, too. But I was grumpy, which can’t have been much fun for other people, especially since comedians can say the wickedest, nastiest things when pushed.
‘You initially become funny as a kid because you’re looking for attention and love. Psychologists think that’s all to do with mother abandonment. I think John Cleese has his depressions and Terry Gilliam’s the same. All of us together make one completely insane person.’
Idle’s own marital ship has sailed through far less choppy waters. His first marriage ended after six years, but his second, to Tania Kosevich, has been going strong for 34 years.
They met at a party in New York. ‘She asked me to dance,’ he says. ‘I told her: “I’m never going to leave you.” We’ve been together ever since.
‘When we go away, we’ll share a room, but for years now we’ve had separate bedrooms in our house. You’re not meant to live together every bloody hour of the day — and it doesn’t stop the other, if you know what I mean,’ he adds quickly.
Spamalot has made Idle a rich man, meaning he only takes on projects he truly loves. Next up is a film of the play What About Dick with Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly.
‘I won’t read scripts because I have a limited amount of time,’ he says.
‘Why should I help other people do lame stuff when I can just go out and put on lame stuff of my own’
Spamalot is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton and tours the UK in 2012 (www.spamalotontour.co.uk).